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Mara Orescanin, PhD

Assistant Professor, Department of Oceanography 
Deputy Directory, Consortium for Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER)

Dr. Mara Orescanin is an Assistant Professor in the Oceanography Department at the Naval Postgraduate School where she researches physical processes in the coastal ocean. Orescanin received her doctorate in 2015 in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography. Before arriving at NPS in 2016, Orescanin worked in environmental consulting specializing in hydrodynamic modeling of coastal systems, including a flood risk assessment for the City of Boston. Since arriving at NPS, she has focused on integrating unmanned systems and machine learning into observations of small coastal rivers. In 2021, Orescanin was awarded a five-year grant through the highly-competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program. The grant enables her to build on her already existing research exploring intermittent rivers, bar-built estuaries and beach breaches and closures, all of which can have considerable impact on amphibious operation planning and execution.

What led you to the Naval Postgraduate School and what has been the most impactful moment(s) of your time on faculty here?

NPS attracted me because of the unique opportunity to span the academic to the operational. The mission of educating the warrior scholar through teaching and thesis research posed a challenge and opportunity for me to pursue my own scientific curiosity while learning how to translate this science into the operational domain. I see NPS as a unique university in the sense that it exists at the intersection between the ideally academic and the purely operational, motivating its faculty to pursue cutting-edge research while maintaining the need to translate that research to the hands of the warfighter.

Can you tell us about “Mara Beach” in Carmel River State Beach and what it personally means to you? How has this beach and the Monterey Bay in general enhanced the way you teach your oceanography students?

I began working at Carmel River State Beach upon arriving at NPS in 2016 because it seemed like the perfect natural laboratory to study sediment transport, beach breaching, and wave/river interactions. As a visual learner myself, I appreciate the benefits of making research tangible to my students, many of whom have been outside the academic world for over a decade. One day, a student of mine asked me: “how did you get our beach named after you?” I had no idea what he was talking about until he showed me that Carmel River State Beach now had the parking lot main entrance named “Mara Beach Carmel." That happened to be the name of a Google maps pin my husband named so he knew where I meant when I told him to “meet me at my beach." He takes credit for making the name public (though we really don’t know how it happened!).

Tell us about your current research and how it might impact the Fleet and Force?

My current research still focuses on morphology and hydrodynamics of coastal areas, especially around small river mouths, using a range in methodology: in-situ observations, remote sensing using autonomous systems, numerical modeling, machine learning, and physical laboratory experiments. A wise mentor once told me that multiple methods always made for stronger science, so I take that as a challenge to learn new techniques alongside my students.

How has your involvement with the Consortium for Robotics and Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER) enabled your research? What is the value of industry partnerships and emerging technology when it comes to both your research and the work of the CRUSER community?

I started working with CRUSER in 2018 as one of their seed researchers for a project that wanted to leverage unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to observe the coastal ocean and learn about how waves interact with the coast near these small rivers. CRUSER was willing to support me as a junior faculty member, and that meant a lot for me and gave me the leg up to really be independent. At the time, I knew very little about UAS in general, other than they seemed to be exactly the right platforms to augment my research. We have now done so much, and this project jumpstarted a relationship with Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific (NIWC PAC) as well as the U.S. Naval Academy, where we have funding through the U.S. Coastal Research Program.

From my current role as Deputy Director of CRUSER, I see partnerships between emerging technology (including industry) as vital to pursuing cutting-edge research. Often times, these partnerships blend the cutting-edge technology experts with faculty at NPS who are current on both the unknown science questions as well as their military applications (often assisted by our students!), so these relationships can be mutually beneficial.

How is working with active duty METOC officers at NPS different than working with your typical student?

One consistent statement you’ll hear across NPS from faculty is how amazing it is to work with our students. I echo this sentiment, because my students bring with them the experience and maturity of having existed in the operational world and often I learn as much from them as they do from me! While I recognize that many are not given the choice to pursue an MS in Meteorology and Oceanography as would be the case at a traditional academic institution, their eagerness and commitment to success helps them overcome any hurdles we throw at them. Imagine being 10 years out of an undergraduate in economics or biology and being told you’re going into partial differential equations and fluid dynamics! It’s impressive the drive my students bring to their thesis work.

Why is an understanding of oceanography and meteorology so important to the Fleet and Fleet Marine Force? Why do we need Officers with expertise in these fields?

I love this question, because so often the weather and the ocean are taken for granted until they become a problem! Whether operating aircraft or ships, submarines or satellites: the atmosphere and ocean always factor into the operational decision making. For anyone who has been seasick, knowing and forecasting the wave conditions can dictate when ocean crossings are or are not possible. In the nearshore, knowing obstacles such as how waves interact with rivers, rocks, mines or harbors will ultimately dictate success of literally any ship-to-shore operation. I could go on and on!

While not all officers may need to know the intricacies of how waves propagate across the ocean (yes, those waves crashing in Monterey Bay came from thousands of kilometers away), having a solid group of officers who have the breadth to know how weather changes, waves propagate, and our atmosphere and ocean move is essential for safety and effectiveness of our fleet. At NPS, the METOC program in Meteorology and Oceanography provides the naval-focused theoretical background for essentially all major atmospheric and oceanic processes. We strive to build critical thinking so that WHEN (not IF!) those operations are greatly affected by the atmosphere or ocean, our graduates have the skills to know how to help.

You developed the first Rapid Innovation Design Challenge which debuted as part of Discovery Day at NPS in May 2022. How did this idea come to life under your direction, and what was the most impactful moment for you as an educator and researcher over the course of the challenge? How would you like to see the NPS community (students, alumni, supporters) get more involved with STEM outreach?

By far and above, the awards ceremony at the end of Discovery Day! How awesome it was to see our winners excited to win their prizes and meet an astronaut! While this program was a pilot and certainly has room for improvement, I just discovered that our online presence reached six states, including 37 separate teachers and over 1300 students. Given the impacts COVID has had on our young minds, it is very rewarding to know we are doing something at NPS to help.

I see STEM outreach as a huge investment in our community and our future. I would like to see all our amazing STEM students and faculty reach out to our community to inspire curiosity. I would love Design Challenge to be a venue in the future where no matter your time availability you can contribute. This year, we had four challenge champions and recruited over 15 judges, all with very small time commitments, but with a large impact on the students who participated.

I take mentorship very seriously, because I look at my own mentors and how this helped me through all the situations in life where I was told I couldn’t do something. When I was in the ninth grade, my math teacher told me that I shouldn’t bother trying to get into advanced math because girls don’t really need to be good at math. I was utterly shocked and hurt by this comment. In graduate school, I think of the times where I almost failed out because I had children, and again it makes me sad. Sad because if someone keeps hearing from the outside world they can’t do something or be something that they dream of being just because of some judgement, we lose talent and it hurts all of humanity. There is no reason STEM fields can’t be diverse and inclusive, so by being as vocal as I can, I hope to do my part to break down these barriers.

In addition to Discovery Day, you’ve been involved with teaching environmental science to college, high school and grade school students, and working with interns in the STEM education field. Why is it important for students and the community writ-large to understand the value of environmental stewardship?

At some point, we all need to realize we live on the same planet, and that planet is changing rapidly. We need to realize the impacts of our daily lives and the impacts of our economy on our futures and the world around us. Often times, it is easy to forget or ignore the impact of losing ecosystems, biodiversity, and general health of our neighborhoods. In California, one of the biggest concerns is water: when do we have none, and what happens if we get too much? I recently read an article that really described well the concept that in our state, we do not have an “average” water year. We either have drought, or we have so much we don’t know what to do with it. Sure, over recorded history, you can average the numbers, but when every year is atypical, how to you plan and account for that? I like to teach my students that all activities that happen in a watershed eventually impact the ocean, so how we care for these areas affects our own health as well (either through agriculture or through fishing). It’s nice to hear stories of individuals who make a point of small steps for environmental stewardship, and how that has a positive impact on our planet. For example, I know a woman who has picked up trash on the beach daily for the past several years. She records it on an app called Clean Swell (from the Ocean Conservancy). It has told her that she’s collected over 18,000 pieces of trash from our beaches over the past two years! If everyone could see the impact that a single person could have, it might motivate more environmental stewards to start something of their own.

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